Being Alone, and How Simple Things Saved My Life.

CW: Brief talk of suicidal ideation

I’ve always been a loner.

Sounds cliché, I know, but it’s true. I joke all the time about my introverted ways, laugh at memes about how quiet we are, how we flake out of plans at the last minute, and am sometimes proud of the fact that I can be on my own for long periods of time.

I have two half-brothers who are older than I am, but we weren’t raised together, and I didn’t meet them until I was around fourteen years-old, so I tell everyone that I was an only child. This is in no way denying their existence. I love them both and we connect from time to time but calling myself an ‘only child’ fits how I was raised. I spent a lot of time in my room if I wasn’t playing outside, and I had friends down the street to visit and ride bikes with whenever I wanted to. I learned communication by playing with them and from playing alone in my room with my Ninja Turtles and other stuffed animals.

Maybe that’s why I talk to myself all the time. At least I know how to hold a conversation.  

I’ve been married before and, amazingly, he was the only person I could stand to live with because he was another introvert. After our divorce I fell into another relationship and lived with him for about a year and that worked out, too. Although, this could have been because he worked a lot and was hardly home, so that left me alone in our apartment when I wasn’t working. We later had to move to different places, and we did make plans for a future together, but like most long-distance relationships those plans ended up meaningless when our communication ebbed until I finally broke it off.

I thought to myself, “I’ll be fine. I’ve lived on my own before, I can manage.”

Then for the first time in my life…I was lonely, and that loneliness seeped into my untreated depression and grew to a menacing shadow, and one night the shadow consumed me to a point that made me decide to jump off the Astoria-Megler bridge that looms over the Columbia. I even sat in my car late one night with the key in the ignition, not really having a plan other than to take as many sleeping pills as I could and then let myself fall into a cold, shallow river.

When I turned on the car, the local public radio station’s evening classical program was on and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” began. This is my favorite piece because it blends classical instruments with jazz piano, and something made me take my hands off the steering wheel. I listened to the entire song with the volume way up. I cried, I hit the steering wheel, I pulled at the strap of my seat belt as the waves of the piano’s crescendos and the splashes of cymbals washed over me.

“Rhapsody in Blue” is like the tumultuous nature of life. It has rises and pitfalls, failures and victories, and I realized that if I left this earth too soon that I would miss something brilliant.

Perhaps whatever brilliance in myself would never be realized either.

When the music finished, I turned off the car and went inside to make a cup of tea and then fell asleep watching “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” It’s a wonder knowing that the simple things I had in that moment (music, tea, and old British comedy) could bring the smallest light in that dark shadow I had just experienced, but those simple things saved my life.

Years have gone by with therapy and medication, and I’m still living alone but in another city now. I was working and dating but never had the urge to hurry up and find a lifelong partner, let alone move in with someone. I ended up loving the area I moved to as it was a few miles from downtown and was surrounded by family neighborhoods and shopping with restaurants that I could walk to on a public trail. I walk this same trail every day, usually on my lunch break and if the weather is nice on the weekend. I walk a lot, saying hello to the people I pass, petting their dogs, hearing their kids laughing as they play in the small park that’s nestled in a cul-de-sac near my complex.

The Hermit, a card of solitude and of self-examination. (Rider-Waite)

Then the pandemic hit, and the lockdown began. I was offered quite a generous separation package from my job that would allow me to take a whole year off from working if I wanted to, and of course I accepted. I’m glad I did because within six months I had written first drafts of two books, took an online American Sign Language class, studied Taoism and Stoicism, and got in touch with nature again. The first year of the pandemic was also when I adopted my cat, Archie and since the ease of restrictions it was easy for me to go back into the community, something of which I plan on doing more of this year.

On one of my usual Sunday morning walks, a thought suddenly came to me: when I was in high school and college, I always felt invisible. I would make attempts to add to a group discussion, but it seemed I was never interesting enough to other people. I got over this as time went on and maybe that’s why, in my late thirties, I prefer being the listener and not the contributor. I’ve always been the person my friends vented to and if they asked for advice I gave the best I could. One of my younger friends told me that she admired my confidence and my free spirit, and it threw me off a bit. I had issues with self-esteem when I was younger, always being the short, plain, slightly chubby theatre kid who hung out with the band kids at lunch while the wispy, tall, pretty girls sat at the table with the jocks.

There I go again with the clichés.

But my friend’s words stuck with me and made me examine my life thus far. I guess I do feel more confident and especially calmer after these last two years. I’ve been alone for most of my life, and many people would go crazy in my situation. Yet I’m content in my solitude, but I’m no longer lonely. I know what real loneliness feels like now because I had once been in the depths of it, and now when it rears its malicious head, I know how to tame it.

Sometimes when I sit on the bench on the park trail, I get that invisible feeling again as people pass by, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. People are too engaged with their phones to notice, and even on beautiful days they walk with phones against their ear and chat about their personal business as I watch them walk by. I say hello to everyone and not everyone says hello back, but that doesn’t faze me.

I like to walk off the pavement of the trail and cut through the swath in the grass that leads to a creek. I can see everyone pass above me on the bridge. Maybe they see me, maybe not. There are a few cut paths that lead to this creek, yet I seem to be the only one that walks down them while everyone else is plugged into their phone or rushing on their bicycles.

But perhaps that’s how they cope with their alone time. I’m sure my neighbors have to go back into the office now, so they use their free time to get in a few miles or a few steps while catching up with a friend on the other end of the phone. And I’m positive they don’t worry about feeling invisible. Hell, they may wish for it from time to time.

I currently work from home but have the option to go into the office every now and then. I’ve tried meeting people through dating apps and online meetup groups, but it isn’t the same. Even though I’m an introvert, I like meeting people in person, so when I got the community newsletter in the mail with upcoming events, I stuck it on the fridge as a constant reminder that if that shadow of loneliness creeps over me again I still have the community.

A month ago, I decided to drive to downtown Portland for some shopping and stopped to have breakfast at a diner I had never been to that was supposedly famous for their Belgian-style waffles. I sat at the bar in a stool that used to be an old tractor seat and behind me was a table with a young couple and their little girl who was probably three or four years old. As I took a sip of coffee I heard this little girl say:

“Why is that lady by herself?”

Her mother immediately shushed her, but it made me grin when her father told her, “Some people like to eat alone.”

But how can you eat alone when you’re in a small, crowded diner? I chatted with one of the girls behind the bar that was drying coffee mugs and overseeing a giant juicer that was stocked with half-cut oranges. We didn’t exchange numbers or make plans to hang out, but I have a knack of making company for myself when I’m out alone, even if it’s just a five-minute conversation with a stranger. An old man sitting a couple of seats from me, no doubt a regular by how the servers greeted him, asked me out of the blue over his ham and eggs what I thought of the President. I laughed and said that I don’t talk politics on an empty stomach, and he laughed, too, and went back to his newspaper. He was also alone but he didn’t seem bothered.

Archie (photo by the author)

Flying solo in public gives me a chance to observe other people and ruminate on my plans for the day or the week. It gives me the chance to think of what I would have missed had I driven to the bridge that night: the farmer’s market on Saturdays, hiking up mountains and walking nature trails, a ginger cat in my lap on lazy Sundays, and quite possibly the best Belgian waffle I ever had.

“I smile at the feeling of loneliness, of fear, of anxiety. I say: ‘My dear loneliness, I know you are there. I hope to take care of you.’ And you make peace with your loneliness; you make peace with your fear.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

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